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What Is Career Pathing and Why Is It Important?

  • Recursos humanos
  • Artículo
  • Lectura de 6 minutos
  • Last Updated: 02/13/2024

A HR manager works with an employee to create a career path in a career development program

Table of Contents

When intrepid explorers enter new territory, having a path or plan that guides their efforts increases their confidence and helps them be more focused. Lack of one may yield the opposite. It's a similar situation for your employees. Entering a new work environment or navigating the future without support or assistance can leave them feeling anxious, isolated and potentially lost. This is where career pathing can become strategically valuable for you and your employees.

Business leaders tell us that two top HR challenges are developing leaders and attracting talent.1 Career pathing can help by fostering greater employee retention and making your business more appealing to potential new hires. No wonder business leaders from companies of all sizes plan to invest in improving career planning and skill-building in the next 12 months.

people management priorities in the next 12 months by company size

What Is a Career Path?

Career pathing, sometimes called career mapping, is a part of a broader talent management strategy that charts an employee's career development with a particular employer. A thorough career path identifies opportunities for growth and/or advancement based on an individual's unique skills, interests, and career objectives. It details the steps the employee needs to take to reach various milestones outlined in the career path.

Career pathing outlines an individual's possible roles at a company or throughout their career. It goes beyond being a mere list of jobs; envision it as a comprehensive roadmap. The journey begins at the employee's current position, with the destination representing a short- or long-term goal. The career path encompasses the entire route, including all the twists, turns, and pit stops necessary for the employee to reach the ultimate objective. These can include the steps taken to pivot and change careers, bringing employees from beginner-level to mastery and back again as they switch directions.

Every career path is as distinctive as the individual who follows it. It depicts how an individual's role within an organization can pave the way for other positions or evolve into something entirely new, potentially extending beyond their current career or even outside the present organization. Career pathing, in turn, is the systematic process of charting these career trajectories for each employee.

This strategic tool is employed by both organizations and individuals for proactive planning, assessing the journey thus far, and establishing goals.

Career Pathing vs. Employee Development

Although related, career pathing and employee development are not interchangeable. Employee development refers to the specific skill sets, training, and/or certifications an employer gives employees to improve their role and value in service to the company. Expanding skill sets and qualifications may be part of an employee's career growth and development, but these things do not establish the career path entirely.

For example, an autoworker is taught a new welding skill, making them more valuable to the employer. This employee development can play a small role in their career. Mastering a new skill, such as supervision or delegation, could open them to further learning, position them for a promotion, a future pay raise, or make them more employable in the event of a layoff or restructuring.

Is There a Difference Between Career Pathing and Career Mapping?

Career mapping and career pathing are two interconnected concepts. While a career path symbolizes a singular career "road," a career map goes beyond, detailing the diverse paths an employee can traverse. Essentially, a career map offers a broader view of career possibilities.

Our emphasis in this article revolves around the intricacies of career pathing. However, it's noteworthy that the benefits we delve into and the tips we offer extend their relevance to career mapping. These concepts work in tandem to enrich and guide an individual's professional career trajectory.

What Is the Difference Between a Career Path and a Job?

The distinction between a career path and a job lies in their scope and purpose within an individual's professional journey.

  • Career Pathing is a strategic approach to planning professional development. It involves identifying connected employment opportunities that can lead to achieving specific career goals over time.
    • Scope: It encompasses a series of roles and experiences an individual intends to undertake during their career. Career pathing considers growth, skill development, and progression within or across various positions.
    • Purpose: The primary goal of career pathing is to provide a structured framework for individuals to plan, navigate, and advance in their careers. It focuses on holistic career development and achieving personal and professional milestones.
  • Jobs refer to specific positions within an organization, often associated with tasks, responsibilities, and a designated role.
    • Scope: Jobs are individual positions that contribute to the overall functioning of an organization. They are often characterized by specific duties and may or may not be part of a broader career path.
    • Purpose: The purpose of a job is to fulfill a particular role within the organization. It may serve as a source of income, provide work experience, or contribute to building skills. However, a job is typically more focused on immediate tasks and responsibilities.

Why Is Career Pathing Important?

Career pathing is vital for both individuals and employers. From a business perspective, career paths offer insights into the skills and aspirations within the workforce, helping with recruitment and succession planning. It empowers companies to nurture talent for new roles and aids in promoting workforce agility for the future. On the individual level, career pathing provides employees with clarity about their next professional steps. It also offers valuable feedback on their work style and guides them toward the most fulfilling route for their future.

The Benefits of Career Pathing for Employers

Career pathing can yield tangible benefits to businesses that invest in it, including:

Greater Return on Hiring Investments

Much of the time, energy, and financial investment in hiring and training new employees is unavoidable. However, the longer an employee stays with a company and effectively contributes, the higher the return on investment in hiring that person, and this is where career pathing can help.

Engaged Employees

Businesses that communicate career paths to their employees can encourage overall engagement throughout the lifetime of their employment as well as their willingness to invest in learning the "ins and outs" of the business beyond the scope of their current role.

Many business leaders are focused on making employee engagement a priority for their companies. Their top engagement tactics include:2

Engagement tactics for employees


A career path can serve as a guide to determine what skills or experiences an employee may need to develop to qualify for newly available opportunities within the organization. Often, the longer an employee stays with your company, the greater your return on the investment of hiring that employee.

Leaders are investing in employee retention. The tactics that are working best include:1

retention tactics by company size


Employees with a long-term view about their relationship with an employer are more likely to be invested in helping the company succeed, and career pathing can play a crucial role here.

Reducing Turnover

Clear career paths demonstrate potential for advancement, reducing turnover by keeping employees engaged. Providing advancement opportunities helps retain top talent and helps avoid the high costs associated with turnover.

Growth and Performance

Career pathing facilitates employee growth aligned with company goals. Employees gain clarity on career steps, training, and development, leading to a more engaged workforce. Employers benefit from positioning people in the right roles, enhancing overall growth, performance and commitment.

Recruiting People Internally

Career pathing is helpful for internal recruiting as it provides a cost-effective method to source talent and boosts morale. Existing employees with the company require less training, contributing to increased productivity.

The Benefits of Career Pathing for Employees

Career pathing requires employees to consider what they want from their career, now and in the future. It also offers other benefits, including:

A Sense of Security

Changing jobs can be emotionally, professionally, and financially stressful. Employees with a career path may feel more secure working for an employer who wants to keep them interested, challenged, and professionally curious.

Increased Trust and Transparency

Career pathing acknowledges that employees may form different interests and seek new challenges. A career path inherently allows employees to grow, expand, and pursue changing interests in a supportive and encouraging environment.

A Plan for Progress

Employees want to know they will gain the experience required to advance in their careers, regardless of how many years they may work for an employer. A career path gives them access to the tools necessary to remain a valuable asset in their chosen profession.

How To Develop a Career Pathing Program

Establishing a career pathing plan makes the concept more concrete and, ideally, attainable for an employee. Charting the course provides best practices, clear markers and an action plan for career growth and development. Precise career mapping includes:

  • Determining career goals and desired jobs for the future.
  • Identifying current skills and attributes that support career goals.
  • Documenting career goals and steps to reinforce those goals.
  • Carrying out the plan by identifying specific ways an employee can reach their goals (e.g., attaining new experiences by attending an industry conference, volunteering as chair of an employee resource group to gain leadership experience, etc.).
  • Conducting assessments regularly. Consider an ongoing review process with regular touchpoint discussions rather than a traditional annual review.
  • Providing access to a mentor to enable ownership of an employee's career development.

Career Pathing Frameworks

A career path can be initiated through an employee development program or independently by an individual who wants to advance within the company. It is applicable across all job levels, from entry-level to executives. While inherently individual, HR professionals and leaders should consider it a company-wide goal, including succession planning and skills gap identification.

Critical components of a promising career path include:

  • Clear Direction: Providing clarity on employees' career directions, whether involving promotions or not.
  • Professional Development Opportunities: Offering avenues for professional growth, including training, education, mentoring, and performance reviews.
  • Progress Tracking: Establishing mechanisms to monitor progress toward career goals.

There are two main approaches to creating a career pathing framework:

  • Career Ladder: This formalized career path follows a linear progression through promotions, typical in hierarchical structures. It is often referred to as the 'corporate ladder.'
  • Career Lattice: The informal career path suited for flat-structured organizations is often called a career lattice. It allows for lateral moves and flexibility and encourages exploration and self-directed professional growth.

Integrating a career development path into existing initiatives involves adapting programs or introducing new steps and tools, such as employee surveys, to enhance the focus on individual career progression.

career path framework, ladder versus lattice

How To Implement Career Pathing in Your Company

Career pathing requires active involvement from employees and the employer. Some approaches to make a career path part of your company's talent management protocol may include:

Position Career Pathing as a Benefit

Leaders say their go-to retention tactic in the next year is improving benefits; last year, boosting pay was the top approach.1

top retention tactics

To position a career development program as a benefit, approach and communicate the value of career pathing as a tool that prepares employees for a "lifetime of employability," not a lifetime commitment to an employer. For example, a franchise food worker can gain skills to eventually become a shift manager, store supervisor, and later, store manager.

More mature leaders, categorized as Gen X and Baby Boomers, say they are focused on improving benefits to aid employee retention.3

top retention tactics by generation

As one client expressed recently, "We'll build career development this year by staying in touch with employees on a personal level to understand their goals and situations."4

Invite Managers To Participate

HR professionals should coach managers to view staff as resources for the entire company, not only for a single department or team. This can encourage managers to see how employees could develop with training that may not be specific to their current role, which could benefit their future goals and the organization's broader needs. Furthermore, it may encourage managers to look at employee potential across the company, making opportunities more available to all team members.

How To Create a Career Map and Define a Career Path for Employees

We recommend a six-step career pathing template to create a career map.

Step 1: Assess Business Needs

Begin by evaluating your business needs, goals, and anticipated growth. Identify challenging roles, establish succession plans, and project emerging roles. Develop clear job descriptions and career paths, considering transferable skills for nontraditional paths.

Step 2: Discuss Career Goals

Engage in regular discussions with employees to understand their short- and long-term career goals. Explore growth opportunities within the organization, review current skills, and align on a defined career path.

Step 3: Build Personalized Pathways

Align employees' goals with business needs to craft realistic, personalized career pathways. Highlight required skills and experiences for each career stage, acknowledging that charting career paths can be lateral, cross-functional, or unique.

Step 4: Create Employee Development Plans

Prioritize upskilling and reskilling through tailored development plans. Offer career pathing development examples such as online courses, stretch assignments, certifications, coaching, and mentoring. Provide specific recommendations based on individual goals, enhancing career progression.

Step 5: Monitor Performance

Regularly monitor and assess performance, ensuring employees feel supported. Facilitate two-way communication for feedback and adjustments. Assess readiness to move forward with succession planning. Modify career growth map plans to demonstrate flexibility to adapt to changing needs.

Step 6: Reward Professional Development

Recognize and reward employees for progressing in their career paths to boost morale and motivation. Acknowledge achievements privately or publicly (depending on your culture and individual employee preferences) and consider pay increases or promotions as warranted by increased skills, experience and contributions. Cultivate a learning culture that values and incentivizes development opportunities.

Provide a Path to Success for Employees With Career Pathing

Taking time to invest in career pathing is an excellent way for employers to demonstrate a genuine interest in their workforce's professional capabilities for mutually beneficial outcomes for the business and the employee. It is a logical strategy for increasing engagement, productivity, and retention while cultivating a desirable work culture.

12024 Priorities for Business Leaders, Paychex

22023 Priorities for Business Leaders, Paychex

3Gen Z to Baby Boomers: Business Priorities for 2024, Paychex

42023 Pulse of HR, Paychex


Podemos ayudarlo a abordar desafíos empresariales como estos Contáctenos hoy mismo

Help your employees succeed with support for career pathing.

* Este contenido es solo para fines educativos, no tiene por objeto proporcionar asesoría jurídica específica y no debe utilizarse en sustitución de la asesoría jurídica de un abogado u otro profesional calificado. Es posible que la información no refleje los cambios más recientes en la legislación, la cual podrá modificarse sin previo aviso y no se garantiza que esté completa, correcta o actualizada.

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